The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality: Exposing the Achilles’ Heel of Jerry Johnston’s Commodified Theology, or An Ethics of Latter-day Saint Reading–Part I
(The title’s a mouthful, I know.)
This is the first post in a five or six part series (to run on Thursdays) that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. Working within a framework of the redemptive paradoxes inherent in Mormon theology and the moral universe it embraces, the series attempts to probe the place of this ambiguity in the central, recurring conflicts in Mormon letters (particularly in light of the debate between those who think Mormon literature should primarily serve orthodox, didactic purposes and those who think it should provide a more challenging aesthetic), to present an economic reading of why much popular Mormon literature remains in the former camp, and to show how one contemporary Mormon writer has attempted to transcend this paradox–and thus to serve a more deifying need–in their own writing.
I. (Mis)Reading the Mormon Tragic Quest
In his recent review of Eric Samuelsen’s new play Inversion, Jerry Johnston introduces what is and should be a demanding discussion on the ethics of Mormon literature, then bows out before giving the dialog due course or even before acknowledging that he only tells part of the story. Because he takes the easy way out, I have to wonder how much homework he actually did before piecing his Mormon Times article together and posting it on the Web. This failure to really examine or review the subject at hand becomes apparent in his first sentence, ten words that could have been lifted directly from the playbill: “Eric Samuelsen is a faculty playwright at Brigham Young University.” While such a comment may imply that Samuelsen’s work, for all intents and purposes, is Church-sanctioned fare, it doesn’t really reflect, as Johnston suggests it does, the depth of the playwright’s artistic, cultural, and theological “gene pool.”1 And yet, Johnston may have avoided this initial moment of shallowness by simply throwing “Eric Samuelsen” into Google’s search engine.
With this few seconds of typing and the click of a button, he might have been directed to Mahonri Stewart’s interview of Samuelsen on A Motley Vision. Beyond revisiting here what he already knew, Johnston might have learned that Samuelsen found his artistic inspiration to “write about [his] own culture”2 by piggybacking on Spencer W. Kimball’s desire, as articulated in “A Gospel Vision of the Arts“, that “someone [would] [“¦] do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration, [“¦] the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions”3 of the Latter-day Saint soul. In this, Johnston might have also discovered that Samuelsen feels a “disconnect with Utah culture,”4 with the conservatism, both in culture and politics, that pervades the Beehive State and its predominant religious institution and way of life. Knowing this, Johnston might have been able to add a little depth to his reading of Samuelsen and not have been so stunned that this non-conservative professor from a deeply conservative university had joined with “a Salt Lake [theater] troupe with a penchant for mounting plays that would make a lumberjack blush” to stage his “bizarre”5 new play, especially since Inversion is not the first union of this playwright and the players of Plan-B.
With a bit more digging, Johnston could have also uncovered Samuelsen’s 2008 Association for Mormon Letters’ Presidential Address in which Samuelsen discusses his present view of Mormon arts and letters, including his fears about the corporatization and commodification of word and image and his assertion “that Literature is testimony. It’s a writer telling us what the world looks like from where he’s standing, or even better, imagining how it would look if he were standing somewhere else.”6
In the end, this few minutes of directed reading might have helped the reviewer better understand the avant-garde creator of such an avant-garde world as Inversion, according to the review, presents. Instead, Johnston spurts a few sketchy lines about the play’s sketchy plot and its inconclusive conclusion, then tries his hand at something of an interpretation, though, as he admits, he “can’t be sure” about his reading. (But really, when can we ever be sure?) Not having seen the play, I can’t dispute with him on interpretive grounds. I might guess, however, that the title has more to do with inverting our assumptions about certain things (including American/Mormon culture and the moral dilemmas of the universe) than with just the temperature inversion that smothers the “mountain rescue station [in which seven young people are trapped] [“¦] in fog.”
I’m convinced, however, that the most damaging and damning aspect of Johnston’s review is not this failed reading of Samuelsen and his play, but rather the way his failure to read and write carefully results in overgeneralizations about and misrepresentations of Mormon culture and theology. Because of this and because of my belief that lazy, unkempt, patronizing, or shallow scholarship, even if masquerading as journalism, is intellectually dishonest and thus fails to fully serve its audience, I really take issue with what Johnston does next. With this comment, “What I am sure about is Inversion is not the kind of fare Mormons will flock to,” he launches into a excusive discussion of the reason why he didn’t like the play (as evidenced by the language and tone of his review) and why most Mormons won’t–or at least why they perhaps shouldn’t–like it either: because, he says, “Mormons, for the most part, like their theater tidier. They like a story that has a message.”7 While I agree that we Latter-day Saints, above most others, are obsessed (and perhaps rightfully so) with the quest for meaning and truth and that as humans we generally like our path to understanding straight and broad, without much risk laid against our hard-won (or not) faith, I don’t agree with the implication of this tidiness: that the moral universe and Mormon theology can (let alone whether or not they should) be tied up in a little bow and distributed as lesson favors at church to our friends and even to some of our enemies or that Mormon writers should maintain a clean and comfortable platform if they want to keep their audience engrossed or even if they want to keep an audience in gross. Such attempts, in my mind, trivialize and in effect undermine the tragic depths to which our forebears, including Christ and Joseph Smith, moved in their efforts to establish and redeem the truth by examining and reexamining, in action and in thought, the central contraries of existence and of the Mormon religious experience.
By reducing the Mormon tragic quest into such shallow and simplistic assumptions about the nature of the paradox driven universe, Johnston (my scapegoat for the impulse of cultural Mormons to strain at an ethical gnat even as we swallow a theological camel by failing to consistently engage with our own mythos) negates or at the very least underestimates the power and influence of Mormon theology and the Mormon God to persuade us into productive engagement with the eternal ambiguities of existence. Indeed, by essentially denying the demands of paradox their well-earned though sometimes culturally neglected place in Latter-day Saint literature, history, and theology, Johnston undercuts the tragic doctrinal insistence of Lehi that, without opposition,
righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore if it [existence] should be [reconciled into] one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. [“¦]
And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; [“¦] wherefore, all things must have vanished away.8
Johnston’s shallow review thus discredits the work of the many Mormon artists like Samuelsen who don’t blatantly “include a lesson or two in [their] work,”9 who see literature as experience, as a witness of life (which, at least in my experience, is never written in black and white and absolutely ripe with meaning) and who strive to capture the opposition inherent in all things in their literary worlds without blasphemously moving to reconcile one side with the other (an attempt, as William Blake also concedes, that would stop our progression and ultimately “destroy existence”10) or to maintain a devoted following.
(Next Thursday’s post: “Part II: In Exchange for the Soul.”)
1 Johnston, Jerry. “Playwright’s scripts are a departure from Mormon morality tales.” Rvw. of Inversion, by Eric Samuelsen. Mormon Times. mormontimes.com. 23 July 2008. 25 July 2008.
3 Kimball, Spencer W. “A Gospel Vision of the Arts.” Ensign. July 1977.
6 Samuelsen, Eric. “Towards a Mission, Minus the Statement.” Presidential Address given at The Association for Mormon Letters Annual Meeting. 8 Mar. 2008. http://www.mormonletters.org/events/AMLprezaddress.htm. (For some reason the link has gone dead. It was there, I promise.)
10 Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Major Authors Edition. M.H. Abrams, et al, eds. New York: Norton, 2001. 1384.